Millwall FC

Wednesday 29th August 2018, 1945 Kick Off

Millwall FC vs Plymouth Argyle FC

The Build Up

For only the 4th time in 25 years, my hometown club Plymouth Argyle had progressed beyond the First Round of the Milk/Littlewoods/Carling/Coca Cola/Carabao Cup, and with the match just being a short hop across London away, I felt obliged to go and watch.  After a goal by the much-loved Yann Songo’o dispatched Bristol City in a fine result at Ashton Gate, the Greens were rewarded with a midweek trip to Millwall’s Bermondsey home.

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Formed by workers of J.T. Morton’s Canning and Preserve Factory (has there ever been a more East London start to a sentence?) in 1885, and originally named Millwall Rovers, The Lions spent their formative years on the Isle of Dogs.  However, space restrictions on the island curtailed expansion, and forced a 1910 move to New Cross (and the now titled Old Den).  The move south of the river cost the club £10,000 but they stayed true to their roots, retaining the Millwall moniker.  New Cross was where Millwall remained, fluctuating between the Fourth and Second Divisions (bar a two year late-eighties spell in the top flight), until a 1993 move to what was once known as The New Den – now just The Den.

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Having been promoted back into Tier Two, now the EFL Championship, via the Play Offs in 2016-17, The Lions achieved an unforeseen 8th placed finish under the stewardship of Neil Harris last year.  A Millwall legend as a player (Harris is still the record goalscorer with 138 in 380 appearances across two spells at the club), Harris has only added to his reputation since taking the reins permanently in 2015.  Millwall (who themselves beat Gillingham on penalties to reach this round) have real cup pedigree, including four FA Cup Semi Finals and three League Cup Quarters.  Most famously though, whilst managed by Rebekah Vardy’s best mate, Dennis Wise, the side from south east London reached the FA Cup Final at Wembley in 2003-04, losing out 3-0 to Manchester United on the day.  That side featured the great Australian, Tim Cahill, a man still remembered fondly in these parts.

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Currently sitting 16th in the league, having won one, drawn two and lost two, Millwall welcomed Derek Adams’ Pilgrims in the middle of a difficult run of form.  A 5-1 loss at home to Peterborough United was the highlight result of an opening five matches which had seen Argyle pick up only two points, leaving them dead last in EFL League One.  The Pilgrims were formed just a year after Millwall, in 1886, and have a strong affinity with the history of their city.  Nicknamed the Pilgrims, and carrying the Mayflower on their crest, Argyle’s identity is closely linked with the original pilgrims who made their way from Plymouth’s famous Mayflower Steps to New England in 1620.  The most southerly and westerly club in English league football, Argyle also bear the dubious distinction of being the only club in the largest city never to play top flight football – an unwanted honour the city of roughly 260,000 took from Kingston-upon-Hull in in 2008.  After securing promotion from EFL League Two in 2016-17 (with a last day draw against Grimsby, I was there, it was brilliant), Argyle also achieved an unexpectedly good position in their first season, where an astonishing run of form post-Christmas saw them rise from bottom to 7th, narrowly missing out on the Play Offs.

Argyle also have some decent cup pedigree, reaching one FA Cup Semi, and two in the League Cup, but their recent (some would say longer than recent) history in the League Cup is not so glorious, having failed to progress beyond round one in all but four seasons since 1993.

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The Ground

I arrived on the train at Queen’s Road Peckham unsure what to expect from The Den, and a lot of that was down to the horror stories which are embedded in a large number of football fans’ minds when it comes to Millwall.  Irrevocably linked to the hooliganism which blighted the English game for so many years, the Lions have a reputation which is worse than most.  Fanned by their portrayal in popular culture, from the Millwall Bushwackers’ role in F Troop, to their scripting as the antagonists in the more recent Football Factory and Green Street, it is possible that Millwall have received a harsher rap than they deserve.  Whilst elements of the club’s support have undoubtedly been no angels at various points, it is also clear that the media highlights Millwall above other clubs at times.  This was never clearer than in 2010 when the then-Bradford City player Gavin Grant was convicted of murder.  Despite having made only four appearances for the Lions in a career spanning eight clubs, when the BBC reported the court ruling, it was headlined with Grant as a “Former Millwall Footballer”, clearly linking the club – unfairly – to criminality.

As it was, my misgivings were unfounded, as I arrived in the area and was met with nothing but friendliness, from the owner of the Ilderton Café, (where I picked up a Set Breakfast No.3 and a Diet Coke for £5.50), to the other patrons in the aforementioned eatery.  Indeed, three fans in particular regaled me with stories about Millwall’s history, and general football banter for a good half an hour over their spaghetti bolognaise.  In particular, we bonded over a shared love for Nadjim Abdou, known to his mates as Jimmy.  The Comoros international made 342 appearances for Millwall, making him their 9th highest appearance maker, after they signed him from the Greens in 2008.  Renowned for his tenacity, to borrow a phrase from my new Millwall-supporting pal, if Abdou was told to man-mark someone, you’d have to tell him to stop at half-time, otherwise he’d end up in the opposition changing room.

The ground itself is a 20,146 all seater, and although only one and a half stands were open for tonight’s match, it still looked impressive – certainly more impressive than the meek 3,645 attendance.  Again, what I was struck by was the welcome, with the staff friendly, and Millwall fans helping direct me to toilets where the queues were shorter so that I could get back to the pitchside quicker.  The programme was odd, some kind of A1(ish) fold out sheet, but you can’t have it all.  Backdropped against the moody London sky, the Cold Blow Lane looked stunning with “THE DEN” emblazoned in huge yellow lettering.

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The Match

A boisterous travelling support of around 400 buoyed the Greens to a positive start once Darren England got us underway.  With the Millwall fans quiet, it was the Green Army who were most audible, as the two sides tentatively probed away at one another.  Unsurprisingly, it took a mere nine minutes for the obligatory chant “Dirty Northern bastards” chant from the visitors, always slightly jarring when watching a match south of the Thames…

After quarter of an hour we were still very much at the early sparring stage, though there were signs of some attempts at neat passing play by the Lions.  Some intricate one touch triangles down their right hand side looked nice, but neither Conor McLaughlin, nor Shane Ferguson could make any inroads against a well-organised Derek Adams defence.  This made a pleasant change for Argyle, as with a number of new defenders, and a new ‘keeper, being broken in, organisation has been at a premium so far this season.   It was telling throughout this evening, that the centre back partnership of Gary Sawyer and Ryan Edwards had both been present last year.

It took quarter of an hour for the first presentable chance, and it fell to the away side.  When central midfielder Jamie Ness danced (I know, it doesn’t sound right to me either) through the defence, he found himself in space on his left foot around eight yards out.  He got a shot away, but Ben Amos, on loan from Bolton Wanderers, reacted well to push the shot clear.

This shot led to a spell of decent pressure from the Pilgrims, as they kept Millwall penned back inside their own half for five minutes or so, but without working any more decent chances.  Then, on 22 minutes the ball dropped invitingly from a Tom Elliott knockdown for Shane Ferguson.  The diminutive winger from Derry swung a left peg at it, but the ball deflected up and over the definitely-not-diminutive Matt Macey’s goal.

On 26 minutes, Plymouth Argyle came relatively close again, when they won a free kick on the edge of Millwall’s box.  A fine delivery by Conor Grant, recently joined from Everton, was met by the thumping head of Ryan Edwards, but his effort sailed past the post.  This is the first time I’ve managed to catch a game where Edwards has started since his successful battle with cancer last season, and I have to say it’s a delight to watch him back where he belongs at the heart of Argyle’s defence.

Around the half hour mark Millwall started to threaten more and more, and much of their dangerous play was centred around Fred Onyedinma.  The 21 year old from Nigeria was full of running, and had great close control in possession.  His ability to change direction at pace was worrying the Argyle defence, and much of what Millwall did well in the first half went through him.  On 30 minutes, his tricky run set up Shaun Williams in the box, and when he felt the pressure from the defender, he went down perhaps a little too easily, and no penalty was the correct call.

A succession of dangerous corners by the Millwall widemen saw Tom Elliott go close, as did a subsequent corner.  Then, on 39 minutes, Onyedinma had Millwall’s best chance of the match.  Shaun Williams drilled a lovely cross field pass out to Jiri Skalak on the right wing, and the Czech international drilled a lovely first time cross along the corridor of uncertainty.  Unfortunately, it was so uncertain Onyedinma had no idea what to do with it, and couldn’t flick the ball goalwards.

Then, a minute later, came the breakthrough, and first blood went to Plymouth.  When Freddie Ladapo, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, chased a ball he had no right to win, his presence forced a corner.  Another fine Grant delivery was met at the near post by Ryan Edwards, who flicked on towards the back post.  Up rose Jamie Ness, and Irvine’s finest caressed his headed effort past Amos’s despairing dive for one nil.

That was pretty much it for the first half, and while Millwall may just about have shaded possession, it was certainly the visitors who had created the best chances.  Freddie Ladapo was putting himself about up front, and Yann Songo’o was simply everywhere defensively.  However, there had been definite warnings for Derek Adams’ side, particularly when the Lions managed to overload the full backs.

And overload the full backs they continued to do.  Jiri Skalak in particular came out with a real vigour in the second half, and for the first ten minutes gave Ashley Smith-Brown a torrid time down Argyle’s left flank.   His good work led to a 49th minute free kick, which Murray Wallace was only able to flick wide.  On 55 minutes he again created a good opportunity, when he drove to the byline and crossed, but this time Arsenal loannee Macey was eased off the ball unfairly and a free kick awarded to the away side.

Neil Harris had clearly given his boys a bit of a rocket, and with Shaun Williams playing the quarterback role nicely, they were absolutely dominant up to the half hour mark.  Argyle were forced deeper and deeper, and with Ladapo a willing but isolated out ball, they found it very difficult to relieve the pressure.  Indeed, just as I was thinking that it would be difficult for Plymouth to hold out, Millwall succeeded in levelling the scores.  Strong play by Elliott in the box enabled him to bring the ball down and get goal side of Gary Sawyer, and when the Pilgrims skipper brought him down, the referee had an easy decision.  Up stepped Williams, looking confident, and although Macey went the right way, even his 6’5” frame couldn’t reach the well struck penalty.

Almost immediately though, Argyle struck back, and it was a combination of disastrous Millwall defending, and a fine finish.  When Conor McLaughlin wanted far too long on the ball, he was robbed by Jamie Ness.  The midfielder then laid it off to Ladapo, who still had plenty to do.  The big man from Romford added to his nice lofted finish against Wycombe last weekend by first beating the recovering McLaughlin, then rounding Murray Wallace, before slipping the ball past Amos to get the goal his performance warranted.

Having already brought of Jed Wallace and Lee Gregory, Neil Harris made his final throw of the dice and brought on Aidan O’Brien to try and recover the game.  Having been so in the ascendancy in the second half, he must have been baffled as to how his side were behind.  There was nothing baffling about the Plymouth defensive effort though, as Songo’o and Antoni Sarcevic in particular were everywhere trying to stem the tide.  Where Argyle didn’t have the resources though was out wide, and it was here that Millwall were making gains.

On 71 minutes, yet another tempting Skalak cross was flicked on by Gregory, but Tom Elliott was unable to control and the back stick and the chance went begging.  Elliott again was the guilty party five minutes later when Shane Ferguson stuck up an inviting cross, but under no real pressure his header back across goal was well wide.

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An 81st minute effort by Aidan O’Brien was bravely blocked by a diving Gary Sawyer, and then on 83 minutes, one of Harris’s subs repaid his faith with the equaliser.  A perfect cross by (guess who) Jiri Skalak left Macey in no-mans-land, and Lee Gregory timed his run to the second, cutting across his marker at the last minute.  Having done the hard work, Gregory was left to complete a task he has managed 125 times in his career already, and nodded the ball into the gaping net.  2-2 and seven plus stoppage to play.

Millwall offered no let up, and a minute later a rasping drive by Williams was acrobatically, and expertly, tipped over by Macey.  Then, on 88 minutes came the gut-wrenching moment for the travelling fans, and it was another substitute who caused it.  Another laser-guided cross-field pass by Williams found the Lions’ left winger in acres of space after Joe Riley – who must have been exhausted after defending the right flank single handedly – was sucked infield.  His cross was met by Elliott, who made up for his early misses by glancing on to Aidan O’Brien.  He took one touch to escape the attentions of Smith-Brown, and then calmly slotted left footed into the bottom corner.  3-2, and surely game over.

Plymouth did their best to rescue proceedings, and Graham Carey and Conor Grant launched hopeful crosses from deep towards the head of Greg Rutherford lookalike Ryan Taylor, but Mahlon Romeo and Murray Wallace were equal to the aerial threat.  After five minutes of stoppage time, referee England blew his whistle, to leave the Millwall fans delighted, and hoping for a draw against West Ham in the next round…

The Wash Up

In the end, an odd result, in that Millwall deserved to win on the basis of their second half performance, but Plymouth Argyle will still feel that victory was snatched from them.  Conceding two goals in the last ten minutes after fighting so hard throughout is a cruel way to have a cup run ended, but Derek Adams will certainly be able to take positives from this performance.  Every man on the pitch put in a mammoth shift, and the display wasn’t littered with the individual errors that typified the loss to Peterborough.  Additionally, there was greater defensive organisation and solidity on display, whilst Ladapo continued his progression up front.

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However, the team did lack for width, and this was ruthlessly exploited by the Lions of Bermondsey in the second half.  Lacking in a little bit of tenacity in the first half, whatever Harris did/said/threw at half time worked the trick, as his side were a different beast in the second period.  Millwall displayed a good level of patience and resolve to break down a stubborn Plymouth Argyle side, and should look forward to the next round with a degree of confidence.

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Strong performances by the likes of Shaun Williams in midfield, Murray Wallace at the back, and Fred Onyedinma up front were the bedrock for the victory, whilst Ben Amos made a crucial save from Jamie Ness early on in the first half.  The real star of the show though, was Jiri Skalak, who pretty much could not be tackled for the second 45.  Every time he got the ball he got his head down and ran at the defence, whether faced by one, two or three defenders.  Able to cut either way and cross with either foot, it was a fine performance by the man from Pardubice (me neither) and he firmly deserved to be on the winning side.


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